What’s in a name?

US Soccer Federation – The name of the governing body of the sport of soccer in the U.S.

The Football AssociationThe name of the governing body of the sport of soccer (football) in the U.K.

One sounds like it’s driven from the top. Clubs exist to give the heads of soccer their power.

The other sounds like it is driven from the bottom.  The power exists to enable the clubs to be the best they can be.

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Top-down soccer federation

Gary Kleiban of 3four3.com contends that structuring a pyramid of soccer leagues in the U.S. and opening the leagues to clubs, will encourage club formation as investors seek to start clubs that might be able to win their way into the top league for the financial gain.

This is the bottom-up way soccer is organized in many soccer-loving nations. England has about 10 levels in its league pyramid, with the top 4 levels being pro.

I think Gary’s argument has merit.

I think there are two barriers.

First, the lower levels the pyramid would likely need to wipe out high school and college soccer.  I don’t see how the pyramid co-exists with serious scholastic soccer.

Check out the highlights from the NCAA National Soccer Championship. Note the empty seats in the stadium. The only people who will miss college soccer are those who play it and the parents who like to brag that their kid is a college athlete.

Second, even the money on the top level currently in the U.S. isn’t that great, so it may not be as big of a motivator as Gary thinks.

Soccer-loving nations had an advantage to creating a bottom-up system…the bottom was already in place. The bottom is kids teaching themselves how to play soccer at ages 5 and 6 in schoolyards and sports clubs that give kids a convenient, consistent and inexpensive avenue to get even better.

Federations in those countries just needed to organize competition among the grassroots.

US Soccer has a disadvantage. The grassroots is weak. School teams fragment the sport and 2nd graders aren’t chomping at the bit to play ‘monkey-in-the-middle’ 15 hours a week on their own.

But, that’s not to say that US Soccer shouldn’t recognize that some bottom-up thinking could help and that competition is good.

 

Power of Voice and Exit in soccer

We have two powers at our disposal.

  1. The power of voice — If we don’t like something, we can try to convince the powers that be to change it.
  2. The power of exit — If we don’t like something, we can try alternative — often a competitor or substitute.

Having both is important.

If there was just one beer maker, we’d just have the power of voice in the beer market. The chances of getting the beer we wanted would be low.

Thankfully, we have many beer makers that make many different beers — so we have both the powers of voice and exit and a much improved chance of getting beers we like.

In fact, we have so many beer options that we don’t need to exercise our power of voice to convince a beer maker to make the beer we like.

We simply exercise our power of exit. If we don’t like a beer, we choose another. If enough of us do that, it rewards the beer makers who make what we like and punishes the ones who don’t. The latter either changes or goes away.

An election for the president of US Soccer will be held in February (2018).

One group of soccer fans would like to see a pro league structure that includes promotion/relegation, among other changes. So far, their power of voice has been ignored by US Soccer officials.

Promotion/relegation (“pro/rel,” for short) is where the bottom 2-3 teams in the top league (in this case, the MLS) each year would be relegated to a lower league, while the top 2-3 teams in the lower league would be promoted to the top league, hence ‘pro/rel’.

The current US Soccer administration is against it for various reasons. One reason is they think it would make it tough to attract investors in teams if there was a risk of losing their ‘major league’ status.

The “pro/rel” folks are now trying to use their power of voice to influence who wins the election for US Soccer president. They want a president that supports their ideas.

Unfortunately, the power of voice is muted without the power of exit. It sometimes works. But that’s not the norm because getting enough people to agree on something is difficult enough without politics and corruption. Even more so with it.

With US Soccer having a big say over how soccer is done in the U.S., the power of exit is limited. But, the power of exit is more effective way to get what we want.

Basic question…why does US Soccer have so much say over how soccer is done in the U.S.?

I could be wrong, but I think it’s because FIFA (which organizes international football competitions) recognizes just one soccer federation per country and so US Soccer has a monopoly on dollars from international competitions sanctioned by FIFA.

That makes it difficult for other soccer associations to emerge to compete with US Soccer.

I will add that soccer federations in other countries seem to view their role in soccer a little different than U.S. Soccer. More on that in the next post.

MiB criticizes soccer in the U.S.

In the last 15-20 minutes of the 12/15 Men in Blazers pod, Rog and Davo have some good and critical words to say about soccer in the U.S. and the MLS, especially about the franchise model of the MLS vs. clubs.

Here’s Rog after visiting Columbus, OH and speaking to the fans who are disappointed about the prospect of losing their MLS team in a move to Austin, TX:

…they’re caught up in the middle of city politics, which they feel is the root cause of their nightmare, compounded by desperate ownership moves and the league’s ultimate sense of the teams as franchises, is what you [Davo] always talk about it, rather than clubs, which are rooted in community. Franchises can be moved and yanked around at will. I don’t think anyone in MLS fully appreciates the panic that Columbus situation is causing, not just for fans in Columbus, but for fans in all teams across the league. Relocation is really permanent relegation. It makes teams sleep with the fishes. And I look at the scarlet letter, worn still in English football, MK Dons, Google them if you don’t know who they are.

Davo responds:

I think you raise an interesting point….There’s something about football, there’s something about all sports, which is about authenticity and the franchise based system, the sort of central league system — [Rog:] Which works in NBA and NFL, [Davo:] And also works Major League Baseball, but those based on a long and massive history of those sports in this country. And so, there is a sense you are watching the NBA, when you’re watching the Cleveland Caveliers, you know, something which has grown through decades and decades and decades of this sports. There is also something about the NBA and the NFL which is very much about the urban makeup of America. About the diversity, about the culture and it reflects that…

I don’t think soccer has got to that place yet. But, what I think is starting to happen organically, which is why I’m so excited about what’s happening in other leagues and other cities [non MLS], it feels like there is an authentic soccer culture which is growing up.

And, I’m not saying that doesn’t exist around many of the MLS franchises, around many of the MLS supporters groups, around many of the MLS teams, but it can sometimes feel a little manufactured — [this says a lot here here –>] — I can just feel Alexi [Lalas, friend of the program and often accused Homer to the MLS] listening to this podcast and saying, ‘you’re not a fan…you are either with us or against us’…I am so with MLS…but I do think what they have at league headquarters, Lord Garber and his friends have to acknowledge that there is a desire among soccer fans, not only to not see what happened in Columbus, but to feel something authentic happening in American soccer culture. That is something Major League Soccer has to address and think about is what they are doing is somehow taking that away.

I think some folks would be surprised to hear this criticism from the Men in Blazers, because they are sometimes criticized for being soft on the system since some of their livelihood is depends on it.

I was surprised.

I think it was on point.

I would add on to their comparisons to NFL, MLB and NBA. Those sports and leagues do not have serious international competition. They are American sports that have not caught on in the rest of the world and there’s no international competitions, like the World Cup, that overshadows the importance of the championships of these leagues.

For example, the Super Bowl is the biggest (Am.) football event in the world. It is contested only by American teams. And we call the winners “World Champs,” which I’ve heard many children snicker at because even they recognize that’s a stretch since Am. football isn’t played elsewhere.

If other U.S. pro leagues had international competitions that overshadowed the importance of the domestic league and the U.S. teams had poor showings in those competitions, you can bet that these same types of discussions would take place for those sports.

Another factor that I believe detracts from the authenticity and community grass roots support in the U.S., that Davo gets at, is that sports clubs are structured different here than they are in the other countries.

In the U.S., youth sports are integrated with schools. Elsewhere, sports club provide the sport experience from ages 5 to 65 outside of schools.

I believe that contributes to the authenticity the clubs have in other parts of the world when compared to the pay-for-play club model that co-exists with high school and collegiate sports in the U.S.

Imagine joining sports club at age 5 and growing up with the club’s senior team — the equivalent of the high school or local college team here. That means from age 5, you are coached by members of the senior team, you practice beside them and you go watch them play on the weekends.

This goes back to the observations I made in this post as a missing ingredient in US soccer culture. Our school-based sports programs fragment that experience for young athletes.

It also subjects soccer to the rule-making of governing bodies that don’t have soccer as a priority — like the NCAA and NAIA which oversees all college sports at affiliated schools. So, you get things like short seasons that fit in with the rest of the sports programs schedules and soccer used as a sport to fulfill Title IX requirements.

 

“Soccer Starts at Home” III

I agree with what Tom Byer says about getting kids started early and in the home to develop their technical soccer skills.

But…

It’s good to keep in mind that doing this won’t turn everyone into World Cup/Premier League players, just like playing catch doesn’t turn all kids into pro baseball players.

But, it will result in a larger pool of players that can make it that level and more and better competition among those players, just like playing catch does for baseball.

Also, I hope Tom’s simple advice won’t be warped into activities for those younger than 5 years old like ‘2- a-week technical training camps led by UEFA licensed coaches’ and ‘elite competitive leagues’.

It doesn’t take a former Yankees coach to play catch with a four year old nor does it take a former Manchester United player to teach a 3 year-old how to pull the ball back. I’ve seen this taught by 5 year-old’s.

“Soccer Starts at Home” II and my home soccer practice tips

I read Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home. It’s short and easy to read. I recommend it and agree with it.

U.S. Soccer is piloting ‘his revolutionary programs.’ Good.

What are those revolutionary programs? According to his book, it’s as simple as getting kids working with the ball at home, in their home, as soon as they can walk, or sooner.

He bought 16 small soccer balls (I’m assuming size 1 or 3 or toy balls) and put 2 or 3 in each room of his house for his two sons to play with.

He discouraged simply kicking the ball (what many Americans think soccer is all about).

He encouraged and demonstrated moving with the ball at their feet — forward, backward, side-to-side, 360 degrees and pulling back using the soles of his feet.

He has videos posted on Youtube of his boys through the years as they learned to control the ball. By the time they were 4, they were more advanced than 10-12year-old soccer players in the U.S.

Tom’s key insight: Kids in soccer-playing countries get a lot of reps through culture (i.e. pickup and unorganized play) that develops their technical abilities starting at young ages, just like kids in our culture get the same type of skill development for our sports — basketball (e.g. “OUT”) and baseball (e.g. ‘catch’).

Last June, I posted about a similar observation of my own here.

Further, Tom correctly observes, if kids aren’t getting enough reps through a culture of unorganized pickup play, then they need to get those reps somehow. One or two hours a week at a camp or training session is not enough.

Just to put numbers on it, kids should be getting 5,000 – 20,000 touches per week on the ball to improve. At training, they may get a few hundred. Even on technical-focused session might only getting them 2,000-3,000 touches. They still need to get a few thousand more on their own.

His solution: work with the ball at home, in the home, from ages 1 or 2 on up.

I second that.

I got into soccer 6 years ago (well past age 2). I had less ball control than a wall. I started practicing in the backyard to improve.

I quickly realized there were too many thing to keep me from practicing outdoors: heat, cold, humidity, mosquitos, darkness, long grass, mud, rain, snow, ice, and so on.

So, I cleared space in my rec room and vastly improved how much and how consistently I practiced and I began improving quicker (and I have only broken one thing, so far, in 3-4 years).

Here are tips and tricks I’ve learned since I started practicing inside:

Have ‘inside’ balls, like Tom says. These balls stay inside, so they don’t track in dirt and grime. And they are always available, so you don’t have to go to the garage and get it.  I use a couple of my son’s old size 4 balls, tennis balls and a toy rubber ball.

Having them lying around means that I will sometimes work with the ball for 2-3 minutes here and there in addition the regular sessions — which increases my touch count.

Deflate the soccer balls to about 80%. Most of my in-home ball work is done with socks and no shoes. The deflated ball is easier on the feet, keeps the the ball’s bounce low and the feel transfers well to a fully inflated ball with shoes.

Like Tom suggests, most of my indoor ball work is about keeping the ball at my feet and being able to move around with it. You don’t need a lot of space for this.

The base of my couches and ottoman in my rec room are perfect rebounding surfaces to work on passing and 1st touch.

I try to get in 2-3 one hour long sessions each week. I look forward to these sessions as much as playing games.

I’m always looking for things to add in to my routine.

YouTube is a great resource to find things to work on. For example, this video gave me a simple tweak to the way I approach juggling practice. Prior to that, I just did the old ‘how many juggles in a row’ method. This video caused me to tweak that to just getting in a certain number of juggles, not worrying about whether I dropped it or not. Since I started this approach, my juggling high score as improved from about 60 to 160 (but it took time). I didn’t do the 1,000 juggles like in the video. I usually do somewhere between 300 and 600.

I am also a member of Renegade Soccer Training, which has a large selection of training videos to choose from. I like these for a few reasons. It gets me through 1000s of touches on basics that I wouldn’t do on my own. I can pull them up on computer or phone anywhere. And, I think Coach JR offers some great form and technique coaching as a part of the videos that reminds you to correct simple form issues that can up your game. I often use about 10 minutes of a video as part of my warm-up for games.

Evolve your routines. I constantly evolve my routines as I learn more. For example, once I learned the new approach to juggling practice from above, I soon added a timed element to it. So, instead of just getting 100 juggles on my right foot, I see how long it takes to get 100 juggles so I can track my performance over time (it’s about 1 minute on my right, 1:10 on my left).

Another recent evolution in my juggling is that I restart balls from the floor, instead of picking them up with my hands. So, I have to pop the ball up with my feet.

Which gets me to my next point: Use performance measures. The previous two paragraphs give you some ideas of performance measures I use. Keep the measures simple. It usually involves a ‘how many’ and/or a time element (e.g. how many can I do in a minute or how long does it take be to get to 100?).

A dribbling ‘time trial’ through cones, like this one or this one from Yael Averbuch are good examples of performance measures and activities that you can build into your routine.

Listen to music. I like to put on some tunes while I practice. It helps me stay focused. Sometimes I use the songs to measure time. For example, I’ll work on right foot chops through cones for one song and left foot chops for the next song.

Share your ideas with teammates and friends so you guys can compete on the measures. My son and I have a friendly competition of juggling. He is currently in the lead.

I use a Soccer Sidekick to also work on passing, shooting and shoelace, thigh, chest and head 1st touch.

These sessions also have a big fitness component. I’m usually drenched in sweat and have had plenty of high-intensity intervals throughout the ball work. I consider these sessions to be a part of my overall fitness routine, which includes running, biking, weightlifting and playing soccer.

Very easy to slip in 30 minutes to an hour. On a busy night, where I get home from activities at 8 or 9, who wants to go to backyard to practice? But, I don’t mind going to the rec room from 9-10 pm to turn on some tunes and do some ball work. It’s relaxing.

The fun part is to see all this work come through in my games. Improving my technical skills has shifted the game from chasing the ball and being a step behind the other team to where now I’m thinking steps ahead, winning balls and just thinking about where I want to put the ball — and my body makes it happen.

The key points to all of this is that getting better at soccer takes hundreds of thousands of reps if not millions of ball touches.

The earlier those reps start in life, the better.

The more barriers you can remove to getting these touches, the better (e.g. having the balls already inside).

The more fun you can make getting these touches, the better.

Wall ball

John Townsend recently tweeted (re: soccer):

The more I coach U10-12s (boys and girls) the more I am convinced that each player needs to spend a significant amount of time with a ball and a wall.

The ability to pass and receive cleanly should not be a problem.

Agreed.